What Happens When Your Brain is on Alfred Hitchcock: The Neuroscience of Film

If you have 22 min­utes, why not sit back and watch the clas­sic piece of tele­vi­sion above, Alfred Hitch­cock Presents’ 1961 episode “Bang, You’re Dead”? You may well have seen it before, quite pos­si­bly long ago, but you’ll find it holds up, keep­ing you in sus­pense today as art­ful­ly as it or any oth­er Hitch­cock pro­duc­tion always has. But why do we get so emo­tion­al­ly engaged in this sim­ple tale of a five-year-old boy who comes into pos­ses­sion of a real hand­gun that he mis­tak­en­ly thinks a harm­less toy? Here with detailed answers root­ed in the mechan­ics of the human brain, we have “Neu­rocin­e­mat­ics: the Neu­ro­science of Film,” a pre­sen­ta­tion by Uri Has­son of Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty’s Neu­ro­science Insti­tute.

Hitch­cock con­ceived of his style of cin­e­ma, says Has­son in the clip below, as “doing exper­i­ments on the audi­ence,” and of a movie itself as “a sequence of stages designed to have an effect on your brain.”

The brains of every­one sit­ting in the the­ater thus, the­o­ret­i­cal­ly, all become “res­o­nant and aligned with the movie in a very pow­er­ful and com­pli­cat­ed way.” Var­i­ous types of research bear this out, from mea­sur­ing the skin tem­per­a­ture, per­spi­ra­tion, and blood flow in the brains of sub­jects as they watch Hitch­cock­’s young pro­tag­o­nist add more “toy” bul­lets to the “toy” gun he bran­dish­es around the neigh­bor­hood. In the clip below, you can see exact­ly how the sci­en­tists’ func­tion­al MRI machines scan the view­ers as they watch the episode, whose plot, as one of the research team puts it, “keeps the par­tic­i­pants a bit on their feet,” flat on their back though they need to remain for the dura­tion. You’ll find the watch­ing expe­ri­ence much more com­fort­able in your chair. It won’t pro­duce much data for the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty, but at least now you’ll know what goes on in your brain as it hap­pens, some­thing about which even Hitch­cock him­self could only guess. To con­duct your own exper­i­ments, see our col­lec­tion of 21 Free Hitch­cock Movies Online.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Alfred Hitch­cock Explains the Plot Device He Called the ‘MacGuf­fin’

Alfred Hitch­cock on the Filmmaker’s Essen­tial Tool: ‘The Kuleshov Effect’

Hitchcock’s Sev­en-Minute Edit­ing Mas­ter Class

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, lit­er­a­ture, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Face­book page.

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